*** Friday Pleasure Rooms
The sound a washing machine makes is predictable. It has phases. There is the opening hiss, rolls and sloshes, a cacophony, then a silence, then a click.
Washing machines have a lot of potential settings, each representing an interplay of temperature, ferocity and duration. Their cycles are configured for different textiles, and there are other considerations as well. Cotton, wool, synthetic, delicate. 30, 40, 60, 90. Cold wash, short wash, spin dry, drain.
Most people stick to only two or three of these settings.
There’s a couple I’ve been thinking about quite a lot this year. What I can’t work out is why. I saw them just once, more than twenty years ago. Or rather, I’ve no idea if I ever saw them again as I would not recognise them. Who knows what became of them? Who knows if they’re still a couple? I hope that they’re happy, but only in the sense I hope everyone is happy. It doesn’t matter.
It’s not really them I saw but some kind of mirage, an intimate reflection, possibly of an idea, possibly of myself.
I saw the couple in a nightclub in Leeds, a city in which I lived for three years. I went to Leeds to study but spent much of my waking life in the dark instead, in regulated places where I could hear music – druggy, electronic music – while people danced, or hugged, or otherwise shouted in one another’s ear. The nightclub was called The Pleasure Rooms. The sighting happened during a club night, Up Yer Ronson, which took place every Friday and had an entry fee of ten pounds.
Neither I nor any of the three male friends I was with had attended Up Yer Ronson before. In fact we’d never so much as discussed going. We identified mostly with the more anarchist end of the dance music spectrum, encapsulated by genres such as drum and bass, techno and trip-hop, but Up Yer Ronson was house music, which felt mysterious and inaccessible in the same inarticulable way as motor sports, department stores and the Conservative Party. A different plan had fallen through, and someone said, ‘Up Yer Ronson?’, so we went, even though the friend in question didn’t sound at all convinced about his idea and had probably just said it for the sake of saying something rather than nothing.
*** Predictable Like Cotton Wash
The couple were a man and a woman in their early twenties. He had short, parted brown hair and wore a purple shirt, glasses with a transparent frame and a silver tie. She had brown hair tied into a ponytail and wore a slim-fitting shiny blue dress. They were dancing together on one of The Pleasure Rooms’ raised platforms. That was it. That was the image that stuck with me: the two of them dancing, facing each other.
Their arms were pumping one way and another and their feet were running through a simple routine. The expressions on their faces were unsmiling, bordering on disinterested. They reminded me, when I think back to it, of the background characters you might see in a video game involving a scene in a nightclub. Was this really something a couple might do? Were they really going to spend two, three or four hours running through this preordained cycle, predictable like a cotton wash? Were they really enjoying themselves or were they just performing that enjoyment so they could tell themselves later that enjoyment had
I really hated the music but at that moment I envied them. They fitted in. They knew what to do. Thinking of them now, I recall a line by Deborah Love: ‘The flower grows without mistakes.’
My friends and I tried to dance but were paralysed by self-consciousness. We nodded our heads a bit and looked around studiously, trying to think of something worth shouting into someone’s ear that would seem like it had been worth the other person leaning forward for. Eventually one of us came up with, ‘shall we go?’ and we did.
I think it was the man’s tie that made me remember the couple forever. At that time, I typically wore a long-sleeved T-shirt with an Aztec hieroglyph on the front. I owned perhaps one shirt with a collar. I knew nothing of ties, and nothing of wearing ties at nightclubs.
It was something to do with the tie.
*** Anticipating The Dance Floor
Deborah Love was married to the Paris Review founder and CIA officer Peter Matthiessen. She died aged forty-four and soon afterwards Matthiessen travelled to a remote part of the Himalayas, a journey in grief that would become the subject of his most famous book, The Snow Leopard (1978).
Love was a member of the Zen Study Society and taught Zen Buddhism at the New School for Social Research. Her line about the flower was a nod to a Zen expression: ‘No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place.’ Proverbs of this kind are often quite similar. Or they fall into several specific categories, of which ‘those which point out how all things are in fact exactly where they’re meant to be’ is one. Ideally they are delivered in person by a Zen master but we can be confident that in the 21st century they mostly circulate in other ways.
So not only can we be our ‘true selves’ but it is impossible for us not to be. Does that apply to people on dance floors? Every time I am on one, I feel I am in the wrong place; I could sit watching a dance floor for hours were it not for the fear that someone would dance over and try to drag me in.
*** The Us That Is Me
A video promoting the TV programme Strictly Come Dancing transports us to an outdoor stage framed by scaffolding and lights. Two rows of men and women are smiling and dancing as they look directly into a camera that swoops in from the left then pans across the front row and inspects the dancers in turn. The playback speed oscillates between sped-up and slowed-down, the latter offering moments to really examine the poses and facial expressions of the dancers nearest the camera’s gaze.
The first slowed-down part, for example, centres on a man in a purple suit, a sparkling off-white shirt with the top button done up, and a gold chain brooch resembling the St Edward’s Crown (the crown used to symbolise the Queen’s authority, for example, in the logo of Royal Mail). He gazes at the camera, at the ‘us’ that is ‘me,’ his lips pursed in performative concentration. His short brown hair is gelled into a side parting, similar to that of the man in the Pleasure Rooms. As we reach him, he stoops into the camera a little and brings his hands together in front of his face, all the better to deliver the pose (which is a pose of the deliverance of a pose, an infinite regress of the depiction of a thing and the thing itself).
*** Atmospheric Purpose: Tongue Pressed On Lower Lip
A blonde-haired woman in a frilly blue dress is dancing just to his left, our right. Her arms are held loosely, but with energetic intent, away from her body, and she smiles and shakes her head from side to side, a gesture of unrestrained celebration.
The motion speeds up for a moment. When it slows again, the man we’re with is in a blue velvet jacket, his facial expression that of a father who is showing off to his children how much he’s enjoying the water slide but, on a subconscious level, actually doing so for the benefit of the woman on the sunbed nearby, not that he wants anything in particular, he just wants to know he’s still got it.
Next, we meet a woman in a yellow dress with a sophisticated smile dancing close to a blonde man in a cyan jacket, his tongue pressed against his lower lip. During the fast motion we glance off a blonde-haired woman in her late fifties or early sixties in a blue dress, and our final slow-motion encounter occurs with a man in a patterned black-and-white leisure jacket, a couture echo of a tracksuit, who points at the camera then twirls around.
The way his thumb is raised, and the way his lips are pursed, reference a gun although so discreetly and under cover of such a dead metaphor that it does not consciously register as such and is subsumed into the overall potage of this throwaway cultural artefact, as British as anything I have ever seen. As he does this the blonde woman to his right, our left, watches him as she dances.
Her smile feels quite genuine in its warmth.
The dancers in the back row are on a raised platform so are visible at all times but in a fourteen-second clip are there for atmospheric purposes, our heroes being those we encounter in the slow-motion interludes. Behind the people in the back row a line of geysers exudes torrents of sparkling light. The stage is a public one as the text in the tweet attests when it declares the dancers are ‘living their best #Strictly lives at the Red Carpet launch!’ Behind that is a high-end office block, rows of square windows divided from one another by way of reddish stone rendered as an entirely flat surface.
*** Stiller Than Still Within
‘Normal is just the cycle on a washing machine,’ said the actor Whoopi Goldberg. As, in fact, did the country singer Emmylou Harris and the TV presenter Trisha Goddard, slight variations of this quote being attributed to quite a few different celebrities. It is, along with ‘dance like nobody’s watching,’ the kind of Zen proverb a consumerist society churns out, all the better for printing onto T-shirts in mock-diamanté lettering, which, ironically perhaps, starts to fall off after four or five washes.
It’s also, ultimately, unfair to washing cycles, giving undue emphasis to the mechanics of the machine while overlooking the nature of the clothes inside, how each time the ‘normal cycle’ is activated they’re flung around in ways that will never be repeated; how they are snowflake-like dancing bodies, which also make use of only so many mechanical gestures but always yield something unseen up until this moment.
‘You are stiller than still within,’ writes Andrew Holleran in the novel Dancer and the Dance, ‘and though you go through the motions of dancing you are thinking a thousand disparate things. You find yourself listening to the lyrics, and you wonder what these people around you are doing. They seemed crazed to you.’